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How Would Cosell Put It? Lately, Monday Night Football’s Schedule Is Lugubrious
The games haven’t been very good, either -- and that is testing one of the most consistent franchises in prime time. Tonight’s Cowboys-Redskins matchup features two 0-4 teams -- a first in 32 years of ABC broadcasts.
by Warren Cohen

Monday, October 15, 2001

Toward the end of last Monday night's 35-0 drubbing of the Detroit Lions by the St. Louis Rams, the ardent fans still watching were reminded that there would be no gridiron glory to be seen the following week, either. The upcoming contest, tonight’s Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins matchup, will feature two winless teams and, as ABC Sports announcer Al Michaels told already-deflated viewers, there has never been a meeting of 0-4 teams in the 32 years and 482 games in Monday Night Football history.

As if ABC didn't have enough to be depressed about with an entrenched advertising recession and its failing entertainment programs, the network has found itself with one of the worst Monday Night Football schedules in recent memory. Washington is already making its second appearance (the first was a shutout), and both Tennessee and Minnesota -- which were expected to be powerhouses this season but instead have a combined 3-6 record -- are slated for two more appearances each. Insists ABC spokesman Mark Mandel, "Before the season, these games looked attractive and they were the ones we wanted to have."

All these problems are hurting one of prime time's most consistent franchises. Commercial time, which last year sold for $330,000 per 30-second spot, is now fetching around $275,000, according to ad executives who have clients in the games. And while ABC is guaranteeing Madison Avenue a 21 household share, the three games after opening night this year have only averaged an 18.3. “A lot of light sports viewers are captivated with recent events and are watching what’s going on in Afghanistan” instead of football, says Bob Flood, director of national electronic media at Optimedia. “With people’s specific interests more news oriented, the NFL has to deal with that now.”

The low ratings dim any chance for the football franchise to benefit from a Hail Mary economic recovery. In this circumstance, instead of selling the space at a premium, ABC will have to remit that time to advertisers who have guaranteed ratings goals that must be met. “That’s the problem with under-delivering ratings,” says Paul Schulman, president of ADvanswers PHD. “ABC Sports will have to satisfy commitments and make good with advertisers.”

That really hurts the network, since football broadcasts are already a loss leader. ABC is paying $550 million in licensing fees to broadcast the NFL during the eight-year life of the contract. The theory is that the networks get a premium platform in which to promote the entire television lineup. Monday Night Football’s diminished ratings performance so far this season certainly isn't helping ABC get the word out about its new fall shows, most of which have disappointed to date. The ratings for the first four weeks are down 8 percent compared to last year.

Some of the programming difficulty can be attributed to the NFL's free agent system. In 1993, the league and owners reached a new agreement that would allow players to switch teams much more easily. As a result, traditional winners weren’t nearly as reliable as they once were -- instead, “parity” became the buzzword. In the past two years, preseason underdogs have reached the Super Bowl, and none of those of four teams had a Monday Night Football appearance their year of ascendance. "It's much more difficult to predict who will be the best or who will most likely make the playoffs," says Mandel.

Compounding the situation is the fact that the league and networks must determine the television lineup before all the player movements and the NFL draft of collegiate stars is complete. The Super Bowl is played in February and training camps open in August. But immediately after the regular season ends, the NFL knows which games will occur on which weekends. And in March and April, well before analysts can get a good read on teams, the television schedule is finalized.

All the football networks -- which also include CBS, Fox and ABC cousin ESPN -- submit their broadcast requests to NFL central headquarters. There, Dennis Lewin, the NFL senior vice president of broadcasting, makes the final decisions and tries to match the networks’ requests to the game schedules. In theory, ABC believes it's getting a fair shake. "Monday Night Football is the showcase for the league and they know that this is the best place to expose all kinds of fans -- hardcore and otherwise -- to the NFL," says Mandel. "They have the same interest we do: to get the highest ratings and to do that, you need the best possible games."

Lewin was not available for comment.

Trouble is, CBS and Fox usually want the same games as ABC. Once the season begins, since they broadcast a slate of Sunday action, they have flexibility to seamlessly switch a regional telecast to a nationally aired game if the matchup merits it. With a single game selected for Monday night, there has been no ability, thus far, for ABC to swap games.

ABC told the league that it hopes to institute a flexible schedule at the season’s end, when a non-playoff contest can crunch ratings by about 25 percent. But the other networks, which also covet late-season contests with playoff implications, refuse to allow it. “We’ve lobbied for it, but the NFL does not approve it primarily because of the contracts that the league has with other networks,” Mandel says.

ABC’s only solace is that, on balance, a lousy schedule doesn’t have as much affect on the bottom line as a weakening economy. “The overall downturn in the ad marketplace is a bigger issue at hand,” Flood says. “Advertisers really have to step up and reinvest in advertising.”

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the ABC and NFL spin patrols from trying to rally enthusiasm. In its weekly pre-game notes to reporters, the league made sure that scribes were aware that the 1992 San Diego Chargers lost their first four games but finished 11-5 and won the AFC Western Division. But even that wishful thinking will probably not prevent this Monday night from being one of the more painful viewing experiences of the young TV season.